Introduction The essays below were originally published inInside the Live Reptile Tent(Chronicle Books, 2001) to accompany photographs by Jeff Brouws. The Craig Krull gallery has selections of editions of Jeff’s sideshow photographs. The photos below are all from the Library of Congress and are not copyright protected. Inside the Live Reptile TentPhotos by Jeff Brouws. […]
Under and over and around all of the ballyhoo, the sights and the sounds of carnival carry us away from our fears to where we confront simple, elemental risks. These present you with places—the banners and booths, the rides and the games—as a terrain of desire and risk. These images tell the story of the carnival as a site of contest and trial, the far edge of what the body can experience. They take you into the heart of the carnival, where once throbbed the pulse of every special weekend and holiday adventure. The carnival aesthetic you see here is over 100 years old, and as new as fresh paint. Those of you who cherish carnival memories will find much in here to spark a smile. And the rest will get a taste of what is still out there waiting for you.
Note: The photographs in this collection are from the Library of Congress and/or the Flickr Commons.
The midway brings the child’s life into a new focus and reminds children when to be fearless. We need to help our children seek out the risks that make them stronger. And we need a carnival where adults can also learn to laugh. Today, perhaps more than before, we need the carnival to show us our limits and help us push these to new levels. So, next summer, when the carnival comes to town, make a beeline for the midway. Plan your own carnival collision. For a few bucks and the grit to climb on board, you can step away from the perpendicular and find new footing in the preposterous. And in 50 years you can tell your grandchildren how dangerous life used to be before virtual-reality computer simulations replaced today’s mechanical contrivances.
The history of the architecture of American amusement has yet to be fully appreciated, and there are many misconceptions about its place in the twentieth century. For most of this century, carnival style was pushed to the margins of the city and also within the practice of “modern architecture,” even though there is no architecture arguably more modern than that of the mechanized midway. While modernist houses and office buildings were designed metaphorically as machines, carnival architects designed actual pleasure machines and dressed these in a cosmopolitan architecture of amusement. The modernists stripped their buildings of Victorian ornament, while amusement park designers piled ornament upon ornament, and then covered the whole shebang in millions of lights. Here was architecture as a machine for marveling.
The carnivalesque is as much a mood as it is a moment. It is an itch, a tickle, a sly wink at the rest of life. Most forms of comedy tap directly into this pool of whimsy. For the Czech writer Milan Kundera, the carnivalesque is the “unbearable lightness” that life and writing must, at all cost, cling to. For the anthropologist Victor Turner, it is life transformed from the indicative to the subjunctive mood, where all things possible can become visible. The Russian cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin claims that we have lost the Medieval carnival spirit and with it, an entire other mode of life. But perhaps he counted too much on the claims of modernists who figured that science and reason would, sooner or later, leave nothing to laughter. He also notes the oppressive power of authorized seriousness in modern times, and he looks for ways to reverse the arbitrary equation of importance with tragedy. Most of all, Bakhtin searches for a serious way of laughing.
Most historical accounts of this time point to technological and industrial changes as the era’s defining moment. Electrification put factory work on a 24-hour day, which required transportation and other services to operate late into the evening and resume early in the morning. The social fabric of the illuminated city stretched to cover the night as day. Such changes, however, are only a part of the picture of early urban modernity in America.
The story of the American traveling carnival tells us something about ourselves It shows us that we are today living, as we have long lived, well within the glare of the lowly midway. Our memories of carnivals remain vivid: weekends we took as kids to amusement parks with the family, chattering and trembling in anticipation, clinging to mountains of cotton candy balanced on a stick and then clutching at the sleeve of an older sibling when the coaster hit the top of the first incline. The annual carnivals that showed up every year in our own neighborhoods, in that vacant lot over by the railroad tracks, where one day there is nothing but litter and weeds and the next, towering metal contraptions with names like “The Zipper” and “Tilt-a-Whirl.” The films we’ve watched, where carnival settings have offered hundreds of places for second-act shenanigans, where hapless victims are always in imminent danger, and where the hero and heroine find the occasion for that first kiss. Our weekly visits to malls and to theme restaurants that borrow shamelessly from this carnival heritage, creating a visual midway with a Cadillac half-buried in its façade, or a neon jungle of flashing signage on its walls-the same kind of signage that lit the original Midway Plaisance in Chicago in 1893 and was later transplanted to roadside tourist traps to lure the gullible off the interstate.